Childhood Leukemia

What is childhood leukemia?

Leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer. Childhood leukemia is cancer of the blood and the tissues that form blood, including bone marrow and lymphatic tissues.

Leukemia affects different types of white blood cells, that help fight infection when functioning properly. Leukemia leads to production of abnormal white blood cells, which eventually outnumber the amount of healthy cells. This affects the blood's ability to do its jobs - delivering oxygen throughout the body, controlling bleeding, and fighting infection.

What are the different types of childhood leukemia?

There are three main types of leukemia. The two most common types of leukemia in children are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). The third type, chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), is less common.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

Acute lymphocytic leukemia accounts for the majority of cases of childhood leukemia. ALL affects a type of cell called lymphocytes, which are responsible for fighting infection when functioning properly. With ALL, the bone marrow overproduces lymphocytes that do not mature and function correctly, and they crowd out other types of blood cells.

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)

Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) occurs when the bone marrow overproduces a type of white blood cell called granulocytes. These overproduced cells do not function properly and crowd out other types of healthy blood cells. Some children with genetic conditions, including Down syndrome, may be at a higher risk for developing AML than other children.

What are the symptoms of childhood leukemia?

Childhood leukemia presents itself differently in all patients, therefore signs and symptoms vary greatly–and may not be present at all. Common symptoms associated with childhood leukemia include:

  • Anemia
  • Bleeding easily
  • Bruising easily
  • Recurring infections
  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain

The symptoms associated with leukemia may also be signs of other common conditions. If you have concerns about any of the symptoms listed above, schedule a consultation with your pediatrician or family physician.

What are the causes and risk factors of childhood leukemia?

The exact cause of leukemia remains unknown at this time. Childhood leukemia is considered an acquired disease. In most cases, childhood leukemia is a result of a gene mutation that could not be predicted or controlled. Leukemia is not considered a hereditary condition and is not typically related to environmental or lifestyle factors.

Some genetic conditions, including Down syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and Blood syndrome, may increase the risk of developing certain types of childhood leukemia.

How is childhood leukemia treated?

Treatment for childhood leukemia is customized for each patient based on a number of factors, including the age and health of the patient, the type and stage of leukemia, and the risks associated with different types of treatment.

Most patients and their families will work with their physicians to come up with a treatment plan that includes radiation, chemotherapy, rehabilitation, or a combination of treatment options. Surgery is rare in leukemia treatment, but it may be recommended, depending on the circumstances.